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On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band
TIM 1NGOLD University of Manchester
Do hunters and gatherers live in societies? If so. do these societies possess any common
characteristics? In the history of anthropology, answers to these questions have turned upon the
nature of a peculiar collectivity known as the band. In this chapter 1 review anthropological
thinking about bands and band-living in two stages.
First. I show how alternative characterizations of the band mirrored three different senses
of society current in the discourse of Western modernity. Each of these characterizations has
purported to provide the corresponding notion of society with a natural, essential, or "primitive"
foundation. Second, by focusing on the themes of immediacy, personal autonomy, and sharing, I
shall argue that the Ibnns of hunter-gatherer life cannot be understood as instances of any
essential type of society. The distinctiveness of hunter- gatherer sociality lies in its subversion of
the very foundations upon which the concept of society, taken in any of its modem senses, has
been built. I iunter-gatherers show us how it is possible to live socially, (that is, to conduct one's
life within an unfolding matrix of relationships with others, human and non- human) without
having to "live in societies" at all.
Society in the state of nature
Hunter-gatherers occupy a special place in the Structure of modem thought so special, lhal had
ihey not existed they would certainly have had to have been invented (which, to a large extent,
they have been; see Kuper 1988). From the eighteenth century to the present, the problem facing
modem thinkers has been to reconcile the thesis that the human is but one species of many
(differing from the Others by degree rather than kind), with the conviction that, alone among
animals, human beings have progressively raised themselves above the purely natural level of
existence, and, in so doing, built themselves a history of civilization. The solution has
been to distinguish two axes of development and change: the biological and the cultural. Along
the first axis are placed those changes that, ever since Darwin, have allegedly linked our ape-like
ancestors, through various hominid grades, to human beings of an anatomically "modem" form.
Along the second axis are placed those changes that led from the earliest fully human ways of
life to modem science, technology, and civilization, apparently without entailing any significant
further change in the biological form of the species.
The intersection of these two axes constitutes a point of origin, from which history rises
upon the baseline of an evolved human nature. It was to characterize the condition of humanity
at the junction of evolutionary and historical change, that modem thought posited "the hunter-
gatherer." History, by the same token, came to be viewed as a process where human beings,
through their intellect and their labor, gradually assumed Control both over the nature around
them ( conveyed by the notion of domestication) and of their own inner nature ( conveyed by the
notion of civilization). Just as the hunter-gatherer , was positioned at the fulcrum between
evolution and history, so the band was located on the fulcrum between nature and society. For an
anthropology bent on discovering the "elementary" foundations of human sociality, stripped to
its barest essentials, there seemed to be no better way than through the ethnographic study of the
modes of association of contemporary hunters and gatherers. "The conditions of life contingent
on hunting and gathering:' as Peter Wilson has put it, "indicate a minimal sociology, suggesting
what is absolutely necessary and sufficient for the survival and well-being of a human society"
The notion of society, however, has no fixed, unitary meaning: it has been pulled this
way and that within a discourse in which it has been variously contrasted to such terms as
individual, community, and state. To cut a long story short, the recent history of ideas has
bequeathed to us three different and apparently quite contradictory notions of what a society is.
All three are situated within a long and continuing controversy among Western philosophers,
statesmen, and reformers about the proper exercise of human rights and responsibilities. In one
sense, also the oldest, society stands for the positive qualities of wannth, intimacy, familiarity.
and trust in interpersonal relations which are also summed up in the concept of community. But
while in certain contexts particularly those of emergent nationalism -society and community
have come to mean much the same thing, namely a group of people bound by shared history,
language, and sentiment, in others, society stands opposed to community, connoting the mode of
association of rational beings bound by contracts of mutual self-interest, as epitomized by the
market, rather than by particularistic relations like those of kinship, friendship or companionship.
In yet other contexts, transactions based on self-interest are conceived as the very antithesis of
the social. Here, society connotes a domain of external regulation -identified cither with the slate
or, in polities lacking centralized administration, with comparable regulative institutions -which
curbs the spontaneous expression of private interests on behalf of public ideals of collective
justice and harmony.
To each of these three senses of "society" there corresponds a particular discourse on the
hunter- gatherer band. In each case, the burden of this discourse is to establish the "naturalness"
of society in the sense implied by it. In the following sections I shall consider the significance of
the band, as. first, an elementary form of community; second, an outcome of strategic
interaction; and third, an egalitarian social structure.
Communism, familism. and reciprocity
Taken in the first sense, the essence of band society is said to lie in the intimacy, convivial ity,
inherent in what anthropological literature has conventionally called "face-to- face relationships:'
Lewis Henry Morgan, describing the domestic arrangements of certain native North American
peoples (whose mode of subsistence, in fact, combined hunting and gathering with cultivation),
had spoken of a "communism in living" (1881:63-78). By this he meant the pooling of effort and
sharing of produce that were the natural concomitants of living under one roof. Morgan's idea
inspired Marx and Engels to characterize the original state of human society as one of "primitive
communism." Many subsequent commentators have followed this lead (see Lee 1988 for a
review). Yet the notion of communism, removed from the context of domesticity and harnessed
to support a project of social engineering for large-scale, industrialized states with populations of
millions, eventually came to mean something quite different from what Morgan had intended:
namely, a principle of redistribution that would override all tics of a personal or familial nature,
and cancel out their effects.
As Elman Service ( 1966) pointed out, the communism of hunter-gatherer societies, if we
can call it that, is embedded in relations of immediate kinship. Essentially "familistic: 1 it has its
counterpart even in modem states with industrial capitalist economies, as seen in the sociality
and redistribuiive practices of lamily and close friends. For Service, family and society in band
societies are effectively coterminous, whereas in states, "society" is identified, if anything, with
the framework of public institutions that partition and envelop the innumerable little domains of
"private" family life. As. in the course of social evolution, societies increase their scale and level
of integration, so families grow smaller, and family relations become increasingly removed from
social relations. "If we compare com parables:' Service observes, ('we find the primitive band of
thirty to sixty persons larger, to be sure, than the family in urban America, but it is still a family
and it is still a very small-scaled society, as societies go" (1966:24 [original emphasis]).
That Service's concept of familism failed to take root in anthropological discussions of
band society was due in part to an attractive alternative formulation offered by Marshall Sahlins.
Sahlins viewed the sharing of effort and resources in the hunter- gatherer band as a prototypical
instance of what he called generalized reciprocity (Sahlins 1972:193-4, 23 Iff.): a kind of give
and lake characterized by difliise obligations to help others who may be in need, regardless of
the specific balance of account, of how much has been given or received, by whom, in the past.
Sahlins contrasted this with balanced reciprocity, in which every gift anticipates an equivalent
return, and negative reciprocity, characterized by persistent and underhand attempts to get
Something lor nothing. Sahlins' aim, in sotting up this continuum of reciprocities from
generalized to negative, with balanced at the midpoint, was to establish a systematic correlation
between the quality of reciprocity obtaining in a given relationship and the social distance
between the parties. This distance was reckoned in tenns of a model of society envisioned from
the vantage point of a particular individual as a series of ever-widening social sectors in which he
or she is perceived to belong: household, lineage, village, tribe, etc. (1972:199, sec also Sahlins
Although at tirst glance, Scr\ ice's farm' /ism and Sahlins' generalized reciprocity seem much the
same (both echoing Morgan's ("communism in living"), there is, in fact, an important difference.
While Sahlins draws his examples freely from societies of hunter-gatherers, agriculturalists, and
pastoral ists, his general theory of reciprocity appeals to a segmentary or "tribal" model of
society, attributed in the main to agricultural and pastoral peoples. According to this model, the
elementary units of society are autonomous and discrete households, each centered on the
relations between husband and wife, and between parents and children. As a relatively self-
sufficient unit of production and consumption, every household enjoys immediate access to its
own means of subsistence. Thus, the agricultural household has its cultivated fields, and the
pastoral household its Hocks and herds, islands of "domesticated" resources over whose yield it
has the prior claim. Acts of reciprocity are then conceived to inhere in distributive relations
between these household units, in more or less inclusive sectors of the wider society.
On the other hand, for Service the essence of the hunter- gatherer band lies in the
extension of familial relations which, in other societies, are internal to the house- hold, across the
entire community. Such a society is not internally differentiated by boundaries of segmentary
exclusion into relatively close and relatively distant sectors, nor is access to the resource base
divided between its constituent units. The band is conceived as one big household, whose
members enjoy unrestricted use of the resources of its country and who labor in common to draw
a subsistence from them. Thus, contra Sahlins, sharing in a hunter- gatherer band is not
generalized reciprocity at all. For far from overriding the limits of domestic self-sufficiency, it is
underwritten by a principle of collective access. On these grounds. Price (1975) has argued that
sharing and re ciprocity should be clearly distinguished: the former is the "dominant mode of
economic allocation" in band societies, whereas the latter is the dominant mode in tribal
societies. The band, in short, is no mere collection of domestic units, each of which places its
own interests before those of the collectivity; rather, it is an "intimate social group. ..small in
scale and personal in quality" (Price 1975:4). The internal cleavages of the band (most apparent
in times of crisis, whether caused by food shortages or interpersonal conflict) arc not, then,
between families, but between men and women, and between generations (Ingold 1986:231).
Behind these debates lurks the issue of the status of the nuclear family as a fundamental
building block of human society. One view, going back to Engels (Sacks 1974), holds that the
minimal domestic unit in the original band society, comprising a couple and their children, had
not precipitated out, as a separate proprietorial interest, from the larger, band-wide household;
thus, rather than being primarily husbands and wives, parents and children, people were brothers
and sisters, of both older and younger generations. It was supposed that within this band-
household, men and women played complementary roles: men sharing the hunting; women
collectively bringing in the gathered produce, preparing the food, and carrying out other aspects
The alternative argument maintains that the nuclear family, integrated by a division of
labor between husband and wile, is the basic unit of production and consumption in every human
society, and that the band is an aggregate of such units bound together by tics of reciprocity,
"lliere can," claims Fried, "be no disputing the significance of the nuclear family as the main
component of the band" (1967:67). This is the assumption behind Sahlins' (1972) assertion [hat
every primitive economy, hunting and gathering included, is underwritten by what he calls a
"domestic mode of production:' There is. however, a third alternative, which is to suggest that the
band is neither a single unit of householding, nor an aggregate of such units, but is rather formed
of two relatively autonomous domains of production and consumption, respectively male and
female. What we might recogni/e as "families" are then constituted at die multiple points of
contact between these domains, through relations of exchange involving food and sex. In many
societies, for example, a husband's first obligation is to provide meat for his wife's mother, who
will share it with her daughter. Hie latter, in turn, will provide her husband both with a share of
gathered produce and with sexual favors. As for children, they share in what their mothers have
collected, and take meat from anyone who has it (Hamilton 1980).
Cooperation and residential Organization
The studies reviewed above all trace the essence of human sociality to the familiarity and mutual
concern generated through prolonged living at close quarters. For other writers, however, band
organization is the result of strategic decisions made by individuals or families in the interests of
Survival and reproduction under particular environmental conditions. These writers consider
social organization to be a component of ecological adaptation, on the assumption that people
will associate, and engage in various forms of cooperation and sharing, if. by doing so, they
enhance the security of their food supply.
The locus classicus for this view is the early work of Julian Steward. In an article dating
from 1936 on "The economic and social basis of primitive bands:' Steward distinguished
between two types of band organization: "patrilineal" and "composite" (Steward 1955:122-50).
The patrilineal band is a relatively small group (about titty persons), comprising a nucleus of
agnalically related men with their in- marrying wives and children. Steward reasoned such a
group would be well adapted to hunting relatively sedentary, dispersed fauna within restricted
territories, using a technology of individually wielded weapons (bows, spears, clubs) calling for
only limited cooperation. The composite band is larger, numbering some hundreds of persons,
and consists of "many unrelated nuclear or biological families" affiliated on the basis of
"constant association and co-operation rather than actual or alleged kinship" ( 1 955: 143). Since
the families of the band are not already bound by relations of kinship, they may freely
intennarry. This kind of band, according to Steward, arises as an adaptive response to the
exploitation of large herds of nomadic, migratory tauna, by means of techniques ( such as game
drives ) involving large-scale cooperation.
Steward's typology has been much criticized. One prominent critic was Service (1962).
I le was convinced that the original human society, regardless of local environmental conditions,
took the form of groups of related men (exogamous "palrilocal bands") establishing the basis for
peacetiil coexistence through die exchange of women in marriage. Following Levi-Strauss
( 1 949). Service reckoned that the establishment of intergroup alliance was the critical feature
distinguishing human marriage from the mating systems of non-human primates, thereby laying
the foundation for human society. Service thus explained the palrilocal band on structural rather
than ecological grounds. Although Service's palrilocal band did not differ in composition from
Steward's patrilineal band, Service chose the tenn "palrilocal" to emphasize the significance of
place rather than genealogical descent in the recruitment of band members. Both Steward and
Service agreed thai men stayed together while women moved on marriage to join their husbands'
groups; yet they disputed the reasons forlhis: Steward (1955:135) emphasized the importance of
local knowledge for success in hunting, which would place a premium on male hunters emaining
in the country where they grew up; Service pointed out (correctly) that, in many societies,
women's gathering is a more significant source of subsistence than men's hunting, and that
hunters' knowledge of the terrain generally extends far beyond the locality of their particular
band. The real reason why male agnates stay together? Sen ice surmised, is because, having
grown up together, they know and trust one another. Such knowledge and trust, he suggested, is
essential not only for cooperative hunting but also in the event of potentially hostile encounters
with other bands (1962:33-5).
The major disagreement between Steward and Service, however, concerned the nature of
the composite band. Having posited the patrilocal band as the universal, original form of human
society. Service saw the composite band as an aberration of history, namely "a product of the
near-destruction of aboriginal bands after their contact with civilization" ( 1962:97) .The
remnants of the original patrilocal bands which had been broken up and scattered, their
populations decimated by genocide and disease, were supposed to have coalesced to form the
composite bands recorded by ethnographers. Though the destructive impact of the West's initial
encounter with indigenous hunter- gatherers is undeniable, there is little evidence to support
Service's interpretation, largely because the model of the composite band that both he and
Steward worked with is an ethnographic fiction.
The organization of those peoples reputed CO live in composite bands diflers from the
model in three respects. First, the constituent families arc not unrelated: the affiliation of any
family with the band depends on at least one kinship link of the first degree, through one or the
other spouse, to an already established member. The resulting genealogical structure typically
consists of a senior sibling group, with in- marrying spouses and children, together with a
selection of the siblings of these spouses and their spouses and children. Second, band
membership is not permanent but fluctuates as people freely shift their affiliations from one
group to another in response to environmental conditions and the rise and fall of personal
reputations. Third, the large aggregates of people that attract Steward's attention are only
seasonal, the high point of an annual cycle of concentration and dispersal. For most of every
year, people live in smalJ, local bands (Helm 1965). Though similar in scale to Steward's
patrilineal bands, local bands recruit bilaterally, not patrilineally. Kinship is cognatic, and
residence ambi local (a woman may move to her husband's place on marriage, or vice versa, or
the lamily may switch between these alternatives on any number of different occasions).
Somewhat paradoxically, recenl research in cultural ecology has identified the band with
a form of organization that, for Steward, represented the exception rather than the rule. 'ITiis is
what he called the "family level of social integration." Societies at this level appeared to lack any
enduring social, corporate aggregates beyond the nuclear family. Individual families would come
together and split apart, in an annual cycle of aggregation and dispersal, in different ombinations
and under different leadership from one year to the next.
Steward had always insisted, following Murdock ( 1 949), that for any social aggregate to
count as a band, it must have "first, a fairly wide-ranging nomadism. ..and second, permanent
membership" (1969:187). Since the multi- family associations found in societies at the family
level of integration lacked permanent membership, they did not count, in Steward's terms, as
bands at all. Ethnographic research has shown, however, that such flux in the composition of co-
residential groups, far from being exceptional, is a widespread and striking feature of hunter-
gatherer social arrangements (Tumbull 1 968). It also emphasizes the importance of
distinguishing analytically between residential flux and the physical impemiancnce of
settlement: between changing company and changing places (Ingold 1986: 176-7). The concept
of nomadism, strictly speaking, refers specifically to the latter. In this strict sense, the nomadism
of most hunter- c gatherers is of a fairly restricted kind, very often tied to . -'c sites that are more
or less continually occupied, even ~" though the list of inhabitants of each may change almost :
from day to day.
Following this line of thinking, we arrive at a view of the band as a loose and unbounded
association of individuals or families, each related to one or more others through immediate
kinship, occupying a particular locale and its environs. It is the outcome of a series of choices
about where to go, and with whom to affiliate, in order to make the best of environmental
resources which are never quite the same, in abundance or distribution, from one season or year
to the next. Recenl proponents mis view (e.g., Winterhalder and Smith 1992) set out to analyze
the incidence of sharing and cooperation in co- resident groups explicitly in terms of the costs and
benefits of participants. Hunters and gatherers, It is assumed, seek "to maximize the net rate of
energy gain," -'ic'much as entrepreneurs in a modem market- oriented
society seek to maximize financial profit (Bettinger 1991 :84). However, whereas entrepreneurs
calculate their own strategics, it is supposed that hunters and gatherers, like non- human foragers,
are programmed to execute strategics worked out for them a priori, through a quasi-Darwinian
process of variation under selection, operating not on genes, but on the elements of a cultural
tradition that is "passed along" in parallel with genetic inheritance, from one generation to the
next. Their adaptive strategies and resulting patterns of association are thus attributed to natural
selection, not to rational choice. Here we have one more example, from contemporary theory, of
the "naturalization" of band society.
The evolution of egalitarian soeiety
Much of the confusion in anthropological discussions of band organization arises from
confounding two quite distinct theoretical concerns: the lirst (reviewed in the previous
section} with principles of local group organization: the second, with social evolution. If one
takes "band" to refer to a local group of a particular kind, then there is no a priori reason why
such groups should be exclusive to hunters and gatherers. One could just as well find "bands"
among nomadic pastoralists or swidden cultivators, in cases where the principles of organization
are found to be precisely the same (as they often are). In the context of a concert! with social
evolution, however, the band is conceived as the first in a series of social forms, of increasing
scale, integration, and complexity, running through tribes and ehiefdoms to states. This series is
generally held to correspond, albeit imprecisely, to a parallel series of transitions in modes of
subsistence, of which the most critical is that from hunting and gathering to agriculture and
pastoralism. Accordingly, the band is taken to be the social form corresponding to hunting and
gathering, and the tribe the social form corresponding to agriculture and pastoralism.
Because of the way in which narratives of social evolution are generally constructed, as the step-
by-step development of the whole panoply of institutions associated with complex, state- level
societies, the earliest stages in the sequence tend to be characterized negatively, in terms of the
absence of institutional forms that have yet to emerge. This is certainly the case with the band.
which, as Eleanor LeacOCk has observed ( 1969:3) . is more easily described by what it lacks:
specialization of labor beyond that based on sex, class divisions, a formal priesthood,
hierarchical political organization, and -most critically - private ownership of basic sources of
livelihood. For those who would identify the concept of society with the third of the senses
adduced above, as a framework of regulative institutions, the problem is whether the band -
characterized by the apparent lack of such institutions - can be regarded as a society at all. Can
there be societies with no, or hardly any, structure (Bloch 1977)?
This question can be framed in both political and economic terms, and I begin with the
former. One of the key debates of Western political philosophy has surrounded the possibility of
a truly egalitarian society. It has been argued, for example by Ralph Dahrendorf ( 1968), that
society cannot be without rules for regulating conduct; that such rules would be meaningless
without sanctions to back them up; and that the existence of sanctions requires that there be
persons in positions to impose them, to exercise power over those who are sanctioned. In any
society, therefore, "there has to be inequality of rank among men" (1968: 1 72). The notion of ail
original band society from which all distinctions of rank are absent. Dahrendorf claims, is a
figment of the imagination. Yet this notion has long been central to anthropological
classifications of social forms, whether or not conceived in an evolutionary mould. In their
celebrated comparative survey of African political systems, Meyer Fortes and E. E. Evans-
Pritchard distinguished between societies with centralized authority, administrative machinery,
and judicial institutions (primitive states) and societies without (stateless societies), but added a
third type: "very small societies. ... in which even the largest political unit embraces a group of
people all of whom are united to one another by ties of kinship, so that political relations are
coterminous with kinship relations and the political structure and kinship organization are
completely fused" (Fortes and Evans- Pritchard 1940:6-7). Evidently, in the delineation of this
third type, they had the hunter-gatherer band in mind.
Morton Fried (1967) draws on hunter- gatherer ethnography to exemplify what he calls
"simple egalitarian societies," as opposed to "rank societies;' "stratified societies;' and "pristine
states;' and identifies the band as the principal form of associating in these societies. An
egalitarian society, according to Fried, is one that contains as many valued statuses as there are
people to fill them, so that power can be exercised by any or all with the capability to do so
More recently, James Woodburn (1982) has drawn aitenlion to the ways that certain
hunter- gatherer societies, namely those who produce for "immediate return" (see below),
"systematically eliminate distinctions of wealth, power and status:' Far from depicting the
egalitarian ism of these societies negatively, as the absence of hierarchy, Woodburn argues that
their equality is positively asserted in the conduct of everyday life (1982:43 1 ). To eliminate
distinctions of power, however, is not the same as eliminating power itself. Despite their
egalitarian ism, hunter-gatherers generally attribute great importance to power and its effects. For
them, power is not power over, nor are its effects coercive in nature. Rather, power takes the
form of the physical strength, skill, or wisdom that draws people into relations clustered around
individuals renowned for one or more of these qualities. Ethnographers have olten resorted to the
notion of prestige to describe the appeal of such individuals. In one sense, this notion is highly
misleading, lor it suggests a competitiveness and ostentation which are wholly foreign to the
tenor of hunter-gatherer life. It does, however, serve to bring out the point that power works by
attraction rather than coercion. Bands do have leaders, but the relationship between leader and
follower is based not on domination but on trust. I return to this distinction below.
Turning from polity to economy, the question of whether there is a distinctive
social form of the band hinges on whether it is possible to specify a set of positive rules or
principles that govern the activities of production and distribution among hunters and gatherers.
In the terms of Marxian theory, if hunting and gathering is not just an assemblage of subsistence
techniques -if it is a mode of production -then it must entail certain rules for the division of labor,
access to productive means, and distribution of produce which together make up the social
relations ( as opposed to the technical forces) of hunter- gatherer production (Godelier 1978).
Leacock and Lee ( 1982:7-9) have isolated six "core features" of these relations: (i) collective
ownership of the means of production by a band, "horde." or camp: (ii) reciprocal rights to the
resources of other bands through the formality of asking "permission:' which cannot be with-
held; (iii) lack of concern with the accumulation of personal wealth, with storage only as a
technique for tiding over seasonal shortfalls; (iv) "total sharing" of produce within the co-
residential group, encompassing both hosts and visitors; (v) access of all to the "forces of
production;' including skills (which may however be gender-specific), and (vi) individual
"ownership" of tools, which are nevertheless freely lent and borrowed. These features, Leacock
and Lee argue, underwrite the quality of what they call "band- living."
Within this Marxian framework, however, the patterns of cooperation and residential
affiliation described by Steward and his followers would not fall within the category of social
relations of production. Arising as they do from specific technical and environmental conditions,
they are aspects of the organization of work, and as such belong with the forces rather than the
relations of production. We might find that the residential composition of the camp among
nomadic pastoralists is indistinguishable Irom that of the local band among hunter- gatherers
(Ingold 1980:265), but the soda! relations of production in the two cases would be quite
different, since pastoralism is characterized by a principle of divided access to the means of
production (living animals), a strong concern with the accumulation of wealth, and limited
sharing of produce.
In most so-called "tribal" societies, of course, the division of labor, access to means of
production, and the distribution of produce are specified in terms of relations of kinship: thus in
lliese societies, relations of production are kinship relations. Claude Meillassoux (1981) has crit-
icized the tendency in anthropology to assume thai kinship-based models of Social structure,
developed in the analysis of agricultural and pastoral societies, are equally applicable to the
analysis of hunter-gatherer bands. Kinship places people from birth in determinate relations with
fixed, lifelong obligations, whereas "in the band an individual's position depends on voluntary.
Unstable and reversible relationships in which he is involved for the limited period during which
he actively participates fully in common activities" ( 1981 : 18) .Such relations, Meillassoux
argues, should be regarded as of "adhesion" rather than kinship. In the next section I shall
consider the appropriateness of the notion of adhesion and whether (or in what sense) the
relations entailed in 'band-living" are kinship relations.
The social relations of immediacy
Let us return to my original question: do hunters and gatherers live in societies? To answer it, I
shall consider the significance of three tenns which appear together in the ethnography with such
regularity and consistency as to suggest a distinctive form of sociality. These are immediacy,
autonomy, and sharing.
The "immediate" quality of hunter-gatherer social relations may be understood in two
ways: in terms either of their lack of temporal depth, or of the direct, unmcdialcd involvement of
self and other. To begin with the temporal aspect, immediacy implies that social relations are of
minimal duration, lived, as it were, for the here and now rather than establishing promises for the
future through the fulfillment of obligations carried over from the past. One observer alter
another has reported a "lack of foresight" among hunters and gatherers, particularly in relation to
the husbandry of food. They are inclined to share out whatever is to hand, eating prodigiously in
times of plenty only to go hungry in lean periods, instead of rationing supplies to make them last.
In this, as Sahlins notes ( 1 972:30), it seems that they are "oriented forever in the present"
According to Meillassoux (1973), immediacy is a definitive property of hunting and gathering as
productive enterprises: yield follows directly from labor invested, whereas much of the work of
farmers and herdsmen (in preparing or planting fields, or pasturing livestock) is done with the
expectation of future yield. There may, however, be significant time- lags between the
construction of equipment or facilities (particularly for hunting and trapping) and their use, a
point which led Meillassoux ( 1 98 1 : 1 4- 1 5) to qualify his original distinction. Labor returns in an
economy of hunting and gathering, he now suggests, are not necessarily immediate,
but they are nevertheless instantaneous. By this he means that nothing holds band members
together save their involvement in the current round of activity, beginning when they team up to
search for food, and ending with the sharing out. and consumption, of the resulting
produce. The band is thus "defined in terms of its present membership " rather than in terms of
relations of filiation or descent linking past and future generations (Meillassoux 1981:17,
The distinction between systems of production ill which the returns on labor are
immediate, and those in which they are delayed, has been further refined by Woodburn ( 1 982).
Like Meillassoux, Woodburn admits that many hunter- gatherer systems (and of course all
agricultural and pastoral systems) are of the delayed- return type. The time-lags may be of three
kinds: between the manufacture and use of facilities, between harvesting and consumption
(where food is stored for any length of time), or -in the cases of farming and herding -between
the investment of labor in establishing the conditions tor the growth and reproduction of plants
and animals, and their eventual harvesting. Woodbum predicts that wherever such time-lags are
found, people will be tied to one another for the duration, by "binding commitments and
dependencies:' Only in systems of the immediate- return type do we find a form of sociality -
more or less corresponding to what Meillassoux has in mind with his notion of instantancily -
characterized by flexible social groupings, residential flux, absence of formal commitments
between persons in specific, jurally defined positions, and a stress on generalized mutuality and
sharing (Woodbum 1982:433-4). My own view (Ingold 1986:21 i-J 7) is that this form of
sociality is not incompatible with time-lags of the first two kinds, and therefore that it exists
more generally among hunters and gatherers than Woodbum allows. Only the third kind of time-
lag- in which tlie initial investment of labor entails a movement of appropriation -establishes
dependencies of the sort that Woodbum associates with delayed-retum systems.
The question remains, however, as to whether the absence of long-term, binding commitments
implies that social relationships are immediate (or even instantaneous) in the temporal sense,
within the fully enveloped concerns of the present. The answer depends on our understanding of
what it means "to relate. In characterizing the constitutive relationships of lite band as adhesive,
Meillassoux implies that each person is like an atom, individual and discrete, unchanging
through time. In their pragmatic associations, atomic individuals arc assumed to "adhere" to one
another, now in one combination, now in another, through an external contact that leaves their
inner being unaffected. Recently, however. Bird- David (1994) has suggested a quite different
image. The person in a hunter- gatherer band, she writes, is like a drop of oil floating on the
surface of a pool of water. When these drops come together, they coalesce into a larger drop. But
drops can also split up into smaller ones that may then coalesce with others. Likew ise persons,
"throughout their lives, perpetually coalesce with, and depart from, each other" (1994:597). The
distinction between adhesion and coalescence, as principles of relationship, effectively
corresponds to that (following Schutz and Luckmann 1973) between anonymity and immediacy,
that is between "they relationships" in which the parties, as experiencing subjects, remain closed
to one another, and "we relationships" in which each enters into the experience of the other and
makes that experience his or her own as well. The forms of human sociality, Bird-David argues,
can be ranged along a continuum from immediacy to anonymity: tlie band may, then, be
characterized as "a social environment which specifically elaborates about the range of
This, of course, is to conceptualize immediacy in the second of the two senses adduced
above, namely as the direct, intcrsubjective involvement of self and other. As such, it depends
upon the deep mutual knowledge that people can only gain through spending time together: on
the intertwining or even merging of their respective life histories. Unlike relations of adhesion,
which are frozen in the present instant, the coalescence and splitting apart of persons, according
to this "oil -in- water" sociology, has to be understood as a process in real time. Tlie sociality of
the band, therefore, cannot be immediate in the temporal sense.
I low. then, are we to contrast immediate relationships with those based On binding
commitments, if not in terms of their respective duration? The conventional notion that
relationships among hunter- gatherers are conducted "face-to- face" is too crude to be of analytic
value, combining as it does tlie connotations of mutualism and role-play. Everything depends on
the connection between person and face, which remains unspecified. Price's ( 1975 ) notion of
"intimacy" is more promising, although Bird- David rejects its implications of exclusivity, which
she finds out of place in the virtually boundary- less context of the hunter- gatherer band
Gibson (1985) suggests that relations based on the experience of living and doing things
together, on "shared activity in itself," can best be described as ones of companionship. He
opposes companionship to kinship: "a relationship based on kinship is involuntary, non-
terminable and implies the dependency of one of the parties on the other. By contrast, a
relationship based on companionship is voluntary, freely terminable and involves the
preservation of the pers9nal autonomy of both parties" (1985:392). The idea thai shared activity
(residing together in a place and cooperating in everyday tasks) constitutes people as related
resonates throughout hunter-gatherer ethnographies (e.g.. Myers 1986:92, Bird-David 1994:594).
These sources are equally insistent, however, that the resulting relationships are predominantly
of kinship. In light of this, Gibson's opposition between companionship and kinship seems over-
drawn. More accurately, kinship relations in the band context arc of a different order from those
to which we are accustomed from studies of "tribal" societies (Bird- David 1994:593). They are
constituted more by the sharing of food, residence, company, and memory, than by specific
commitments and obligations incumbent on the occupants of positions within a lormally
instituted structure of social rules and regulations.
Autonomy mist, and sharing
In our comparison of relations of adhesion and coalescence, we have already foreshadowed the
particular kind of autonomy thai, judging by the ethnography, is a general feature of hunter-
gatherer social life. ITie basic principle is that a person's personal autonomy should never be
reduced or compromised by his or her relationships with others. Or. more positively, it is through
their relationships that persons are constituted as autonomous agents. That this might appear
strange to the Western reader owes something to hidden assumptions about the nature of
personhood. To expose these assumptions, we may consider another fundamental value which
ethnography consistently attributes to hunters and gatherers. This is the value of individualism.
This same value is frequently adduced as one of the diagnostic features of a specifically
"Western" sensibility, where it is linked to political ideals of liberty and equality. How, then,
does the individualism of hunters and gatherers differ from mat of the modem West?
The Western individual is a self-contained, rational subject, locked within the privacy of
a body, standing against the rest of society consisting of an aggregate of other such individuals.
and competing with them in the public arena for the rewards of success. Relationships in this
arena are characterized by their anonymity- that is. by the absence of direct, intersubjective
involvement. They are brittle, contingent, and transient affairs. By the same token, the autonomy
of the individual is given from the start, prior to his or her entry into any social relation- ships at
all. For hunters and gatherers, by contrast, the dichotomy between private and public domains,
respectively of self and society, has no meaning. Every individual comes into being as a center of
agency and awareness Within an unbounded Social environment which provides sustenance, care,
company, and support. The people around him, the places he knows, the tilings he makes and
uses, all are drawn into a person's subjective identity (Ingold 1986:239). Selves, in other words.
are "grown" within a Held of nurture; as their eapaeities for action and perception develop, so
they expand to incorporate the very relationships that nourish them. Personal autonomy arises as
the enfoldment of these relationships, and unfolds in purposive action. A person acts with others,
not against them; the inlenlionality driving that action both originates from, and seeks fulfillment
through, the community of nurture to which they all belong.
Evidently these are just two ways of managing what Myers (1988:55) calls "the dialectic of
autonomy. ..and relatedness". In the first, epitomized by the modem Western ideal of civil
society, relationships are strictly confined to external contacts in the public domain, and do not
violate the integrity of the private, subjective self. In the second, exemplified by the hunter-
gatherer band, selves expand to fill the entire field of relationships that constitute them.
In this light, Meillassoux's mistake, in characterizing band relations as adhesive was to have
imported into the context of hunter- gatherer social life, a model of association of modem
Western provenance. Yet. granted that the hunter- gatherer's autonomy is constituted by
involvement with others, how can this be reconciled with the fact that such involvement entails
considerable dependency? People who draw their livelihood from hunting and gathering do
depend materially and otherwise upon one another. Does not dependency inevitably compromise
autonomy? I would argue that it does not. Rather, the combination of autonomy and dependency
calls into being relationships that are founded on the principle of trust.
To trust someone is to act with that person in mind, in the hope and expectation that they will do
likewise, by responding in ways favorable to you. On no account, however, should you attempt
to force a response by placing the other person under obligation or compulsion. To do so
would represent a betrayal of the trust you have placed in them, and would be
tantamount to a renunciation of the relationship. Trust is founded upon a . respect for
the autonomy of the other on wh01T1 one depends (Ingold 1993:13). By recognizing
that relation- ships are based on trust, we can make better sense of the dynamics of
power and leadership in the hunter-gatherer band. Leaders depend upon followers to
uphold their reputations. But followers join the band of a leading individual, such as a
renowned hunter, because they trust him. Here, trust is conditional upon leaders
respecting followers' autonomy. Should the former, at any stage, seek to dominate the
latter, whether by threat or
command, the latter, feeling their trust to have been betrayed, will take their loyalties elsewhere.
A follower, as Henriksen (1973:42) observes, can always move to join another band if he feels
that his autonomy is unduly curtailed. Thus, the good hunter should never make his superiority
obvious, and should always retrain from telling others what to do -an injunction that lends to
impede effective decision-making (Henriksen 1973:40-54). In the context of band- living, as we
have seen, power works by attraction, not coercion, and the slightest tip in the balance from trust
to domination will cause it to self-destruct.
Finally, we come to the phenomenon of sharing. This has been regarded, in the literature,
either as an innate human disposition (with possible but disputed homologues in non-human
primates), or as a rule or convention fundamental to society as an instituted order. Representative
of the first view is Glynn Isaac's (1978 ) celebrated reconstruction of the adaptive complex of the
earliest human hunter- gatherers, in which sharing was linked to bipedal locomotion, tool-
making, language, the sexual division of labor, and daily return to a home- base. This is to treat
sharing as an evolved behavioral trait, as much a pan of human nature as walking on two feet.
The second view is exemplified by Morion Fried's ( 1 967: 1 06) declaration thai sharing was "the
paramount invention that led to human society." and by Peter Wilson's (1975:12) claim that, in
hunter- gatherer societies, "sharing has the status of a rule;' carrying all the force of a moral
obligation. Meyer Fortes ( 1 983), for whom there could be no society without rules, regarded
sharing among hunters and gatherers as an instance of "prescriptive altruism;' by which he meant
acts of self-denial that are obligator)' and rule-governed -quite unlike the allegedly altruistic, but
in fact genetically programmed, behavior of certain non-human animals (1983:26).
My position differs from both alter Latives. While there is certainly more to sharing than the
output of a behavioral program, sharing is not a rule-governed, obligatory act. The more that
actions are is attributed to the detenu i nation of rules, the more the responsibility for those actions
is removed from persons and attributed to the imaginary agency of society. In the limiting case,
the complete prescriptive altruist- entirely beholden to society in everything he does -ceases to be
accountable for his actions at all. He has no personal autonomy left. Yet. by sharing, persons
surrender nothing of themselves to society. The scope of their autonomy, far from being
diminished, is enlarged. We should not. of course, confine our understanding of sharing to
exchange of food. In addition to material goods, people share tasks, dwelling spaces, company.
stories, and memories. In a word, they share "each o//;cr"(lngold 1986:1 17, original emphasis).
Thus food-sharing is just one aspect of the total process by which persons are "grown" In a
context of immediate sociality, through incorporating the substance, knowledge, and experience
of others within a field of nurturancc.
The practice of sharing makes it possible for people to depend on one another, in a
general way. without losing autonomy. It is thus based on the same principle as the relation of
tnist. In sharing, as in trust, one avoids any form of pressure or coercion. One cannot reasonably
press for more than what others manifestly have to offer (Bird-David 1992:30). Conversely,
sharing rarely if ever lakes the form of unsolicited giving. No one pul under pressure to receive
what they have not asked lor. Sharing almost invariably takes place in response to requests,
directed from those who lack something, toward those whom they perceive to be in possession of
it. Myers ( 1988:57) describes this as "mutual taking;' while Peterson (1993) has elevated it to a
general principle of "demand sharing." Since it conflicts wilh the Western ideal of generosity
willingness to give without being asked, demand sharing has tended to be construed rather
negatively, as evidence for a certain stinginess that persists beneath the surface of hunter-
gatherer life. But as Peterson points out, if commitments to others are "construed not in terms of
giving fieely, but in terms of responding positively to their demands, the morality of demand
sharing is as positive as that of generosity" (Peterson 1993:870).
Together, the principles of immediacy, autonomy, and sharing add up to a form of sociality
utterly incompatible wilh the concept of society, whether by society is meant the interlocking
interests of civil society;' the imagined community of the ethnic group or nation, or the
regulative structures of ihe state. First, the hunter- gatherer's claim to personal autonomy is the
very opposite of the individualism implicated in the Western discourse on civil society. While
the latter posits the individual as a self-contained, rational agent, constituted independently
and in advance of his or her entry into the arena of social interaction, the autonomy of the hunter-
gatherer is relational: a person's capacity to act on his/her own initiative emerges through a
history of continuing involvement with others in contexts of joint, practical activity. Second, in a
world where sociability is not confined by boundaries of exclusion, people do not define
themselves as "us" rather than "them: 1 or as members of this group rather than that, nor do they
have a word to describe themselves as a collectivity apart from the generic word for persons.
This is why outsiders -explorers, traders, missionaries, anthropologists -seeking names to
designate what they have perceived as societies of hunter- gatherers, have often ended up by
borrowing exogenous labels applied as terms of abuse by neighboring peoples toward hunter-
gatherers in their vicinity. Finally, the principle of trust that lies at the heart of hunter-gatherer
sociality will not accommodate relations of domination of any kind. Yet such relations are
necessarily entailed in any system of regulative institutions which legitimate and empower
certain persons, in the name of society, to control the actions of others. It is not enough to
observe, in a now rather dated anthropological idiom, that hunter- gatherers live in "stateless
societies:' as though their social lives were somehow lacking or unfinished, waiting to be
completed by the evolutionary development of a state apparatus. Rather, the principle of their
sociality, as Pierre Clastres (1974) has put It. is fundamentally against the state.
In the extensive discussions which have surrounded the question of whether hunter-
gatherer "societies" have distinctive features in common, few have stopped to consider the
applicability of the concept of society itself. Taken in any of its modem senses, however, this
concept is rooted in the discourse of domination. One might even say, with Levine and Lcvinc
(1975:177). that society is domination. The concept of society carves the world of human beings
into mutually exclusive blocks in much the same way that the concept of territory carves up the
country they inhabit into domains of political jurisdiction. If the latter implies a relation of
control over the land, the former implies a relation of control over people. In this light, hunter-
gatherers exist in "societies" for those seeking to exert control over them, but not for the hunter-
gatherers themselves. Their world is not socially segmented; it is constituted by relations of
incorporation rather than exclusion, by virtue of which others are "drawn in" instead of parcelled
out" (Ingold 1990). As Peter Wilson observes, hunter- gatherer sociality is guided by focus rather
than boundary: people "organize their social lives through focusing attention rather than referring
it to a rigid structure" ( 1 988:50):
In the conduct of their mutual relations, hunters and gatherers demonstrate the possibility
of a perceptual orientation toward the social environment that is direct, rather than mediated by
structures of control. Perhaps we could go further, to suggest that this perceptual orientation is
not conllned to relations among human beings. It also extends to non-human components of the
environment: to animals and plants, even to features of the landscape that we might regard as
inanimate Hunters maintain relations of trust with their animal prey, as they do with human
persons, assuming that animals present themselves with hunters in mind, allowing themselves to
be taken so long as hunters treat them with respect and do nothing to curb their autonomy of
action (Ingold 1993). The powerful hunter attracts animals as he attracts followers. For gatherers,
the forest nurtures humans in the way adults do children -comprising together what Bird- David
( 1990) calls "the giving environment:' Generally, human relations with the non- human
environment are modeled on the same principle of sharing that applies within the human
community (Bird-David 1992). In short the rigid division that Western thought and science
draws between the worlds of society and nature, of persons and things, does not exist for hunters
and gatherers. For them there are not two worlds but one, embracing all the manifold beings that
dwell therein (Ingold 1996:128). Far from seeking control over nature, their aim is to maintain
proper relationships with these beings (Ridington 1982:471). There are, of course, as many kinds
of relationships as there are kinds of beings, but the ditVcrences are relative, not absolute. And if
no absolute boundary separates relationships that are social from those that are not. then what
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Facets of Hunter-Gatherer Life in Cross-Cultural perspective
Gender relations in hunter-gatherer societies i
KAREN L. ENDICOTT Dartmouth College
"For years many feminist anthropologists and hunter- gatherer specialists have been at odds in
their interpretations of gender relations in foraging societies. This chapter presents overviews of
gender relations in various hunter- gatherer societies, explores interpretative differences, and
examines some common misconceptions about hunter- gatherer gender relations.
Anthropology traditionally neglected to study women; this led to theories that overly
emphasized men. Durkheim (1961 [ 19 1 5]:53) categorized Aboriginal men as sacred and women
as relatively profane. Radclille- Brown (1930) concluded that the patrilineal, patrilocal
"horde" was the basic unit of Aboriginal society. Service (1966) postulated that the patrilocal
band, which kept male hunters together, was the natural form of social organization for huntcr-
galherer societies. However, beginning with Phyllis Kaberry (1939). who showed that East
Kimberley Aboriginal women had their own sacred ceremonies and ties to the Dreamt ime. a leu
voices gradually spoke up lor hunter- gatherer women (see Bemdl 1965. Turnbul 1 1965. Lee and
Devore 1968, Goodale 1971, Briggs 1970).
Fueled by feminism in the 1970s, the anthropology of women focused new attention on
hunter- gatherer women, especially "woman the gatherer" (see Dahlbcrg 1981, Reiler 1975).
Underscoring that biology is not destiny, anthropologists dropped the term "sex roles" and
adopted "gender" to refer more broadly to the ways societies define, elaborate and evaluate
sexual dimorphism. How. Ihey asked, is gender used as a tool for organizing social life?
Ironically, however, some feminist anthropologists carried over anthropology's emphasis on
males and developed gender theories that interfere with understanding gender complexities in
hunter- gatherer societies. Rosaldo and Lamphere asserted that male dominance and sexual
asymmetry are universals (1974:3). Friedl (1975.1995) argued that sexual asymmetry is
unavoidable in hunter- gatherer societies because men hunt and distribute meat beyond the
family. Collier and Rosaldo ( 1 98 1 ) contended that women are merely objects of male
manipulations in the marriage systems of simple societies, including hunter- gatherers.
Various anthropologists who have done fieldwork with hunter- gatherers have described gender
relations in at least some foraging societies as symmetrical, complementary, nonhierarchical, or
egalitarian. Tumbull writes of the Mbuli: "A woman is in no way the social inferior of a man"
(1965:271). Draper notes that "the IKung society may be the least sexist of any we have